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Mayor of London's State of the City Address


Mayor Ed Holder:

Good morning.  Thank you Marc for your kind introduction.  And thanks to the Chamber of Commerce and London’s Convention Centre for hosting this annual review of the State of our City.   And let me acknowledge my City Council colleagues and our City administration led by London’s City Manager Martin Hayward.   

Most importantly, I want to thank the thousands of Londoners who are taking the time to participate in this great democratic tradition, be you in the room today, tuning into the news tonight, or watching the event online during the weeks to come.  Henry Ford once observed: “Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.”  The power of working together is my central message today as I share my observations for where we are as a City, where we’re headed, and how we can each contribute to London’s success.  Let’s get started. 

This State of the City comes at a moment in history of global uncertainty that naturally makes many of us anxious.  We look at the forces beyond our control and ask:  “What will be the impact on jobs as our provincial and federal governments trim costs to deal with large budget deficits?”  “Will business or political decisions made outside our City lead to the type of job losses that were recently announced in Oshawa?”  “Will we still be able to afford to live in our homes and apartments as interest rates continue to rise?"  These are thoughtful questions.  They reflect not only global uncertainties but changes closer to home.  A new Ontario government.  The next federal election soon to come.  And a new City Council less than 60 days in office. 

I know the pain and fear of job loss and paying the bills.  I grew up poor as one of 13 people in a 3-bedroom house.  As a young man I almost lost my home when interest rates soared in 1981.  And like many Londoners I moved to our City not knowing anyone, driven by the need to survive and with hope for better days ahead. 

A common practice these days seems to be warning of the dangers ahead by referencing the pain many of us felt during the Great Recession of a decade ago when London’s unemployment rate was double digits and our City’s capital debt financing was a perilous 23%.  We should not ignore such warnings; they keep us on our toes.  But we must also not ignore a fundamental truth: the state of our City has significantly changed in these past ten years.  Consider these facts:

  1. Our unemployment rate last year was 5.6%, the lowest in recent history.  We ended the year even lower at 5.0%.
  2. Our City’s finances are strong.  Our budget is balanced and capital debt financing to maintain infrastructure was just 4% in 2018, a dramatic reduction versus the 23% of a decade ago.
  3. Our residential property taxes as a percent of household income are now the 4th lowest of 25 Ontario cities with populations greater than 100,000.
  4. Construction is booming.  For the third year in a row City construction permits have exceeded $1 billion. 

What has not changed is the diversity of our economy.  We are not a single industry City.  Rather, we are a community of 14,000 employers with a quarter of our jobs in stable public institutions such as schools and hospitals and with no private firm accounting for more than 1.6% of all London jobs.  The stability of our economy combined with the strength of our City’s financial management are fundamental reasons why Moody’s has given London its highest credit rating, triple A, for the 42nd year in a row.  It is why our economy has recovered so well across the past 10 years.  And it is an important draw for new business.  Case in point: Maple Leaf Foods which in two years will, in London, open the largest and most technically-sophisticated processing plant in their history and will employ more than 1,400 London-area citizens.  We are joined today by Maple Leaf’s Senior Vice President of Government and Industry Relations Rory McAlpine and Vice President Poultry Strategy Lou Cappa.  Gentlemen, please stand as we give you a warm London welcome.

When we put this all together the conclusion is unmistakable.  Our economic performance and diversified job base are achievements that any City of any size in any country on this planet would be proud to call their own.  In a word, the State of our City is STRONG.

The strength of our City is reflected in the achievements of our citizens across this past year.  When I asked City staff to gather highlights they quickly assembled a list of hundreds.  All are worthy of recognition but time allows for just a few to be highlighted.  So, with thanks in advance to all who moved London forward in 2018, here is an illustration of the work we did together:

  1. Our first responders have kept us safe.  To illustrate: the most recent Municipal Benchmarking Network report shows London as Canada’s best amongst 8 comparable cities in terms of fire station response time and second lowest in per capita fire-related deaths.
  2. Fanshawe College helped fill our jobs and revitalize our downtown.  Fanshawe was ranked #1 amongst large Ontario colleges for the percent of students who graduate and #2 for the percent of graduates finding employment.  In 2018 Fanshawe opened the College’s Schools of Information Technology and Tourism, Hospitality and Culinary Arts on Dundas Street.  The College’s three downtown locations now bring more than 2,500 students to our City’s core each day.
  3. Tourism London and our City’s top entertainers and athletes continued to bring tourism dollars to London and thrills to us all.  In 2018 London hosted the Ontario Summer Games, the Continental Cup of Curling, the Canadian Tire Para Hockey World Challenge, dozens of cultural events, and was named the host City for this year’s Juno Awards.  The London Lightning were Canadian basketball champions, Western’s football squad made a repeat appearance at the Vanier Cup, and Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir were crowned Olympic ice-skating champions.  Lightning owner Vito Frijia, Tourism London’s Cheryl Finn, and Juno Host Committee Chair Chris Campbell have joined us today.  Would you please stand and be recognized by your home-town fans.
  4. London’s planning, engineering, and construction talents came together to show us how we can create our future while respecting our past.  London’s historic Blackfriars Bridge reopened last month providing easier access to our downtown for cars, cyclists, and pedestrians.  And our City joined forces with the London Library and the YMCA to open the Bostwick Community Centre.  Bostwick has become a spectacularly successful gathering spot for residents in southwest London.  Even more important, it is the anchor for a new half billion dollar residential and office complex that our previous City Council approved last month.
  5. London’s medical community helped keep us and the world healthier.  The Middlesex-London Health Unit, recognizing that our City has one of Canada’s largest populations of people who inject drugs, opened a temporary Consumption and Treatment Service last February.  In its first 10 months of operation the centre handled 11,000 visits, saved 65 lives, and connected more than 200 drug users to addictions treatment.  Also in the area of opioid addiction, a team of researchers at the Lawson Health Research Institute and Western University developed a new clinical protocol called STOP Narcotics which reduces the amount of pain medication prescribed after surgery by 50%.  Through these efforts and many more Lawson was ranked among Canada’s best hospital research institutes in 2018. 

There may be many who are itching to shout out “How about the stuff that isn’t working?”  They are absolutely right.  While the state of our City is strong and the accomplishments of our citizens remarkable our work together is far from done. 

Over the next three months City Council will complete a Strategic Plan which will define the priorities of City government over the next four years.  Shortly after that we will develop and approve a matching 4-year budget.  Our strongest plan and our most successful implementations will come by bringing the best of our collective experiences together.  Not just those on Council but of all Londoners.  You might say “No one asks me for my opinion.”  OK.  So, here’s my personal invitation to you.  Get involved.  Bring your input to the strategic plan through the surveys, open houses, and public participation meetings that will take place next month.  And continue to let your voice be heard by meeting with your Ward Councillor and attending City Council meetings.  Want to have an even bigger impact?  Do this as a group.  The bigger and more diverse the better.  The views of multiple stakeholders thoughtfully coming together behind a worthy cause almost always grab the attention of City Council and the media.

Since we all have voices let me kick-off this process by sharing my priorities for the 4-year Plan:

  1. Refocusing our primary job efforts from more employers to more employed.  I remain strongly supportive of new investments in London be they from new businesses or from local firms such as Gateway Casinos whose expansion plans are now crystalizing.  These new projects are exciting.  We must not, however, lose sight of an important truth: the primary restriction to growth for London, as it is for most cities, is the ability for our businesses to hire enough qualified workers.  Some of the skills required are quite advanced.  But most unfilled jobs simply require a good work ethic and willingness to learn.  THEREFORE, MY TOP PRIORITY IS TO REFOCUS OUR PRIMARY JOB EFFORTS ON FILLING THE OPENINGS AVAILABLE TODAY.

    How do we fill jobs in the face of a record-low unemployment rate?  One answer lies in the large number of London unemployed who do not appear to be looking for a job and are, therefore, not included in the unemployment rate.  We call the total of people without jobs, those actively seeking work and those not, our not-employed rate.  When we include all Londoners ages 25 to 64 who are not working London’s not-employed rate is a staggering 28%.  That rate is the highest of 10 similarly sized cities in Ontario.  More meaningfully, that rate translates to 77,000 Londoners in their prime working years who don’t have a job.

    You might be thinking “There are lots of reasons why those 77,000 Londoners aren’t working.”  I agree.  Many Londoners are going to school or retired; that’s why I restricted my number to those within their prime working years of 25 to 64.  Some Londoners are not able to work due to health or other personal reasons while others have chosen, for various reasons, not to work. That is why I have compared our not-employed rate to that of the 10 similarly-sized cities in Ontario tracked by Statistics Canada.  They all face similar employment challenges and London’s job performance should at least match theirs.  Today it does not.  But we can and we will change that.

    If we were to lower our not-employed rate to the average of those 10 cities we would put 13,000 more Londoners to work.  We’d almost double that number if we matched the best cities.  13,000 more employed is a massive number.  It is the jobs equivalent of bringing 13 new big businesses to London.  We have the jobs.  Stats Canada reports that there are almost 9,000 openings in the London Economic Region right now.   And we anticipate thousands of new jobs to open within the next two years.  Imagine the positive impacts on London families and businesses on filling those jobs.  We’d give our City wings to fly.  And we’d be the role model for cities across Canada and beyond.

    Better tapping into our talent base is critically important.  Leaders from across London agree.  We have formed a Task Force called “London Jobs Now” to more effectively connect London job seekers to our employers.  My office has, with enthusiasm, made the commitment to lead the group.  We are joined by The London Economic Development Corporation, London’s Chamber of Commerce, the London Region Manufacturing Council, London Social Services, Fanshawe College, Western, and our first private-sector firm, Nestle Canada.  Today we’re asking you to join us.  Send an email to jobs@london.ca and be part of the solution.
     
  2. Better addressing the needs of our most vulnerable.  We are seeing the strains of London’s not-employed on our social system:

    First, we have too many living in poverty.  The 2018 Vital Signs report commissioned by the London Community Foundation shows that 70,000 Londoners live in poverty including 1 in 4 children.  We have the third highest child poverty rate in Canada.

    Second, we have too many without affordable housing.  Our waitlist for social housing continues to grow.  It now stands at 4,770 eligible Londoners, up 34% versus last year.

    Third, we have too many being harmed by drug addiction.  London has the 6th highest rate of opioid-related hospitalizations in Canada.

    These problems are found across our City but perhaps draw the greatest concerns from those Londoners who spend time in our downtown core.  Some say “Get these people off the streets” but fail to suggest where.  We cannot, and will not, simply move our most vulnerable out of sight.  This is a complex problem.  In the long run we must address difficult issues - more jobs for those able to work, more social housing and related support services, and more addiction treatment services.   The solutions are large enough that we’ll need, and we’ll seek, funding support from the provincial and federal governments.  But there is work we can do locally.  The “London Jobs Now” program is one step.  And I’m pleased to report that work has been started by City Staff and community partners through the recent launch of a collaborative downtown pilot called “Informed Response”.  My hope is that we can take the learning from this pilot and later this year extend and broaden compassionate care for our most vulnerable.
     
  3. Accelerating the transportation decisions that will more reliably get Londoners to their work and schools on time.  Londoners agree that it’s time to end our City’s impasse on the Bus Rapid Transit plan.  Our provincial and federal governments agree.

    As we know, the Ontario government has said that they have earmarked $170 million to provide support to transportation infrastructure projects in London.  In addition, Ottawa has re-confirmed its $204 million contribution once London prepares and the Ontario government approves specific plans for how we will use these funds.  Both governments have made clear that they are supportive of transportation infrastructure projects that might lie inside or outside of the current BRT plan, and that the decision on which projects to propose rests squarely with London’s City Council.

    To be clear, neither of these commitments are blank cheques.  As we would expect, specific projects must be accompanied by plans that detail how the money will be spent.  City staff will be essential in the process both in working with our Council and with their engineering and finance counterparts at Queen’s Park and Ottawa.

    There is a time clock to this work that all Londoners need to understand.  While we will not be rushed into poor decisions we must be aware that the fall federal election will delay projects that only come up for approval starting in the summer.  Accordingly, with the province’s support, I am today encouraging City Council to work together to identify major projects that we can bring to the Ontario government within the next 60 days.  We might not have consensus on all projects within that period but can, and should, kick-start a number that can significantly help all Londoners.

    While this infrastructure work is progressing we must move to improve the reliability of bus service to get Londoners to work and school on time.  We’ll start with the industrial areas and add as needed service to the new Maple Leaf plant and rapidly growing residential areas within our City.  We must, as a City, encourage and support London Transit as they work to get this done on our behalf.
     
  4. Working together to keep our City safe.  Although London remains a safe City the number of crimes and the associated police response times are increasing significantly.  Our spending with the police is the largest component of London’s budget.  We cannot afford to spend our way to a solution.  But we can work together to find smarter ways to increase public safety.  Two examples come to mind:

    First, a significant drain on police resources relates to drug and mental health issues, particularly the significant time spent by officers in hospitals as they wait for the patients to be admitted.  The Police Chiefs of Ontario are working with the province on a proposal to dramatically cut police officer waiting time in hospitals so that we can keep more feet on the street.  I strongly support them in this effort.

    Second, working together is also the only way we will address and solve the challenge of what has become an increasingly dangerous and disruptive weekend: the Broughdale street party near Western University.  Last year dozens of students were taken to hospital and dozens of police officers were called upon to control the crowd.  The City, Western, Western’s Student Union, and emergency services have formed a Task Force to face this problem head on.  The Task Force will issue its report by April 30.  And I will strongly support the Task Force at Western’s Board of Governors to which I have been recently appointed.
     
  5. Streamlining our City’s construction permit and approvals processes.  Last year London’s private sector’s investment in residential and commercial construction exceeded the entire City Hall operating budget.  And with multiple new projects on the books such as the just-announced development of the London Psychiatric Hospital lands, that trend will continue.  Our City government has done a very good job in managing our growth through our planning processes.  We also have a comprehensive set of by-laws to keep construction safe and our City livable. 

    We have heard from some builders and developers, however, that it has not always been easy to do business with the City.  Our reviews can take too long and our decisions sometimes go beyond the by-laws we have put in place.  Our City Government recognizes this and, in 2018, made changes to streamline processes and bring City teams who perform similar functions together so that they can better serve our builders and developers.  We will continue to make improvements during the year ahead.

While we tackle these City-specific priorities let me leave each of you with a final challenge.  It is time to expand our view of London’s role within Ontario, Canada and the world.  Many of you will know the work of Richard Florida, a global authority on how cities succeed.  A basic premise of his work is the rise of mega-regions as the global economy replacement to cities as the fundamental economic unit of our time.  Florida has identified 40 mega-regions in the world.  The twelfth largest, with a population of 22 million and an economy of more than half a trillion dollars is the London/Quebec City/Buffalo triangle.  That’s right, Florida has specifically identified London Ontario as the western terminus to the world’s twelfth largest economy. 

I believe that many Londoners don’t see our City that way.  We tend to think of ourselves as the London Region or the Southwest Ontario Region.  A broader view won’t change the day-to-day work that keeps our City humming.  But it will allow us to think more powerfully in terms of what industries we target, how we better connect to the rest of our mega-region, and the value that London can bring to Ontario and our nation. 

A clear starting point is higher speed train service between London and Toronto.  Getting this done will allow London and Ontario to reap the benefits of a more closely integrated mega-region.

We’ve covered a lot of ground so let me recap.  The state of our City is strong.  The hard work and achievements of Londoners are exceptional.  We, like all cities, have problems we must address in order to continue to improve the quality of life for all.  Your City Council will, across the next few months, complete a 4-year plan and associated budget that will priorize which tasks we address.  I am inviting you, and all London citizens, to actively engage in this process.  My top priority, which impacts all the others, is to focus our efforts on filling current job openings and, in so doing, put 13,000 more Londoners to work.

My central message, though, is less about what we do and more about how we do it.  I began with a quote from Henry Ford on the importance of working together.  Let me end with a quote from the late Prime Minister Lester Pearson on the same theme: let us “live together in confidence and cohesion; with more faith and pride in ourselves and less self-doubt and hesitation; strong in the conviction that the destiny of Canada is to unite, not divide; sharing in cooperation, not in separation or in conflict; respecting our past and welcoming our future.” 

Thank you for your time today.  Thank you for all you do for London.  Let’s embrace the year ahead as we move London forward together. 

 

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